Science & Tech

The discovery of Solitary Waves near Mars

A team of Indian scientists from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism (IIG) reported the first evidence of the presence of solitary waves around Mars in a first-of-its-kind discovery.

What are Solitary Waves?

  • Solitary waves are distinct (bipolar or monopolar) electric field fluctuations with constant amplitude-phase relationships.
  • Their shape and size are less affected as they spread.
  • Solitary waves are thought to be in charge of plasma energization and transport in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Uncovering the hidden solitary waves

  • The Earth is a massive magnetic entity encased in a magnetosphere created by the movement of molten iron in its core.
  • This magnetosphere forms a protective layer around our home planet, shielding us from the Sun’s solar winds.
  • However, unlike Earth, Mars lacks a strong intrinsic magnetic field, allowing the high-speed solar wind to interact directly with the Martian atmosphere.
  • This interaction suggests that, even with a weak and flimsy magnetosphere, solitary waves on Mars are still a possibility.

Why is this a significant achievement for India?

  • Despite several Mars missions, their presence was never detected — until now.
  • Indian scientists, on the other hand, have successfully identified and reported the first-ever solitary waves detected on Mars.
  • They arrived at this conclusion by analysing approximately 450 solitary wave pulses observed by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft’s Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument.

Decoding the data

  • Their analysis revealed distinct electric field fluctuations lasting between 0.2 and 1.7 milliseconds.
  • Such signals were most common between dawn and dusk at altitudes ranging from 1000 to 3500 kilometres above Mars’ surface.
  • More research is needed to determine why these waves are dominant at certain times of the day.

The importance of such waves on Mars

  • These pulses are most visible at an altitude of 1000-3500 km around Mars in the dawn and afternoon dusk sectors.
  • Researchers are investigating their role in particle dynamics in the Martian magnetosphere, as well as whether such waves contribute to the loss of atmospheric ions on Mars.
  • The study of these waves is critical because wave-particle interactions directly control particle energization, plasma loss, transport, and so on.
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